The three countries that make up the Caucasus – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – offer an exhilarating mix of majestic mountain scenery, beautiful monasteries and mosques, vibrant cities, and some of the world’s most delicious and distinctive cuisine to enjoy along the way. With their position bridging Europe and Asia, these countries have a unique heritage to complement their natural beauty, making the Caucasus a wonderful destination to explore.
The three Caucasian republics are relatively small countries. Azerbaijan, the largest, covers 86,600 square kilometres, roughly the same as Austria. Georgia, at 69,700 square kilometres, is a little smaller than Ireland. Armenia, with an area of 29,743 square kilometres, is a similar size to Belgium. A comprehensive trip covering all the highlights of the three countries might take two to three weeks. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is closed, but both countries have open borders with Georgia, which can be travelled by train, bus or taxi. There are also regular flights connecting Tbilisi with Yerevan and Baku.
Having spent much of their histories as subjects of more powerful neighbours, the countries of the Caucasus have strong national characters. Georgia and Armenia are proud of having been among the first nations to adopt Christianity, while Azerbaijan points to its successful implementation of a secular Islamic political system. All three pride themselves on their welcoming outlook, making them extremely friendly countries to visit.
Whether you love hiking or skiing, or simply enjoying fantastic scenery, the Caucasus has so many options. For those keen to get out on the hiking trails, Georgia’s Svaneti region offers a limitless number of routes between mesmerising mountain peaks and clear blue lakes, while walks around Xinaliq – Europe’s highest village, in northern Azerbaijan – are gentler but no less dramatic. For a real challenge, consider tackling Armenia’s Mount Aragats, the country’s highest peak, or the multi-day ascent of Georgia’s mighty Mount Kazbek.
If you’re a fan of winter sports, there are plenty of opportunities across the region. A particularly fine choice is Armenia’s Tsaghkadzor, which is an excellent ski resort. Stay at the Tsaghkadzor Marriott Hotel to relax in comfort after a day on the slopes. Azerbaijan, too, offers fantastic skiing, particularly in the resort of Shahdag, where one of the most appealing hotels is the Pik Palace Shahdag Autograph Collection. If skiing isn’t on your itinerary, consider Georgia’s Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, from whose rooms you can enjoy the gorgeous view of Mount Kazbek towering above the tiny Gergeti Trinity Church.
Armenia and Georgia were among the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity, and nearly two millennia of devotion to the religion has seen the construction of hundreds of gorgeous churches and monasteries, often positioned in truly beautiful locations.
In Armenia, take a drive through Debed Canyon, where you’ll find the atmospheric monasteries of Sanahin and Haghpat, which have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and are considered among the finest churches in the country. Noravank, found in a picturesque canyon in the country’s south, is another highlight: visit at evening when the setting sun lights up the monastery’s orange-red stone with a glowing intensity.
Georgia also boasts a wealth of unmissable monasteries and churches: head east to Telavi to check out the monastic complex of Gremi and its dazzling medieval frescoes, as well as the peaceful cathedral-like church of Alaverdi. While in Tbilisi, don’t miss the ancient Anchiskhati Basilica, which lies an easy fifteen minutes’ stroll from the bright, welcoming Moxy Tbilisi hotel, just over the arched Saarbruecken Bridge. For something completely different, make your way south to Vardzia, where you’ll find an enormous troglodytic monastery carved into a sheer cliff face.
Churches and monasteries can also be found in Azerbaijan, particularly in the north, but it’s perhaps better known for its historic mosques. The town of Shamakhi, just west of Baku, is home to perhaps the country’s finest: the Juma Mosque, built in 743, is one of the oldest in the Caucasus, and is a quiet elegant structure with a beautiful portal and gorgeous tilework.
The countries of the Caucasus have a huge variety of delicious dishes to tempt you. Particular highlights include khinkali, a distinctive dumpling containing a peppery meat and broth combo, and the magnificent Georgian khachapuri, a bread and cheese concoction that comes in a number of incarnations. One of the most irresistible is the Adjarian khachapuri, which also contains egg: seek one out in its hometown of Batumi at Retro restaurant.
For a delicious main course, all three countries specialise in barbecued meat, known as khorovats in Armenia, mtsvadi in Georgia and shashlik in Azerbaijan. In each case, prepare your taste buds for some of the most flavoursome and tender lamb or pork imaginable. Follow up with some of the region’s unique desserts, including Azerbaijan’s excellent baklava-like halva or Georgia’s candle-shaped churchkhela, concocted from grape juice, flour and walnuts.
The unique position of the Caucasus between Europe and Asia has produced a fascinating architectural heritage. Head to Yerevan to check out the legacy of the Soviet era, in the forms of the Cascade Complex, a massive open-air sculpture gallery, or the beautiful Armenia Marriott Hotel Yerevan, built in the 1950s as part of the showpiece Republic Square ensemble.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, looks to the future in Baku, with remarkable innovative architecture such as the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, built to resemble a rolled-up carpet, and the smooth, flowing curves of the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by the multi-award-winning Zaha Hadid. Baku hasn’t forgotten the past, though: buildings such as the Courtyard by Marriott Baku evoke the elegant charm of the city’s nineteenth-century imperial history.
Georgia’s architectural scene achieves a perfect balancing act between the past and future: for every gorgeous eighteenth-century merchant’s home in Tbilisi’s Old Town, there’s a sleek futuristic counterpoint. Don’t miss the Tbilisi History Museum in Tbilisi, which is housed in a former caravanserai, or the gleaming Sheraton Batumi Hotel, which takes inspiration from the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria and is known as the White Pearl of the Black Sea.
It’s very likely that the Caucasus was the first place that ancient peoples realized the huge potential of pressing grapes and allowing the juice to ferment. Both Georgia and Armenia claim to have invented wine, with an archaeological expedition in southern Armenia uncovering what’s thought to be the world’s first wine press, dating back more than 6000 years. Wine-making techniques have been refined in the intervening period, and today the region produces several excellent vintages. Head to Telavi or Sighnaghi in Georgia and take a tasting tour, finishing at the internationally acclaimed Pheasant's Tears winery, or explore the vineyards of Armenia’s Areni region, making sure not to miss the fabulous Old Bridge Winery.
Azerbaijan’s shiny Flame Towers in the heart of Baku are a modern architectural interpretation of its epithet: the Land of Fire, a title it enjoys thanks to its numerous geological curiosities. On his visit in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo is thought to be the first person to note the country’s plentiful oil resources, and Azerbaijan is now quite possibly the only place in the world where you can enjoy a bath in naftalan oil at a petroleum spa. Other must-see geological attractions within easy reach of Baku include Yanar Dag, a hillside perpetually burning thanks to the ignited natural gas beneath its surface, and the remarkable six-foot-high mud volcanoes of Qobustan, which boast cauldrons of bubbling cold mud that are often occupied by locals, who swear by the health benefits.
Published: December 13, 2022
Last Updated: February 23, 2023
Article Tags: Armenia , Georgia , Azerbaijan
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